Saturday, 16 October 2010

THE JOY OF MUSIC FESTIVAL: SOFYA GULYAK and The London Chamber Orchestra Quintet / Review



London Chamber Orchestra Quintet

City Hall Concert Hall, Hong Kong

Tuesday (12 October 2010)

Frederic Chopin has been much maligned on the strengths (or rather weaknesses) of the orchestrations in his piano concertos. The truth is this: he was first and foremost a pianist, and all his music highlighted the brilliance of his playing. No orchestra was to get in his way (à la Brahms) in his piano concertos. These were never meant to be an equal partnership in the first place, which is why chamber versions of his piano concertos sound, if anything, can sound superior to the orchestral versions we are familiar with.

The Joy of Music Festival 2010 unveiled the World Premieres of both Chopin concertos in chamber transcriptions for string quintet by Uruguayan composer Carlos Levin (left). At once, one is struck by the how symphonic five string players can sound in the opening tutti of the Second Piano Concerto in F minor (Op. 21), performed this evening. In fact they yield nothing to the original version, setting the mood and tone for Russian pianist Sofya Gulyak’s entry.

Gulyak is not a tall woman, but she is compactly built, with a slow centre of gravity. She has both power and precision in her playing, which belies a silken touch when called upon. Her Chopin sounds totally natural and unforced, shaping her cantabile lines beautifully, yet with muscle and sinew to the fortissimo passages. Her use of rubato was also tastefully applied, bringing nuance and character to the music. The nocturne-like slow movement was particularly beautiful, with the hushed strings providing very discreet support yet heightening the tension as the music gradually reached a passionate climax. The Rondo finale was delightful, with Gulyak’s clean fingerwork spot on throughout. Even if the viola solo does not quite replicate the French horn, Joel Hunter’s obvious zest in delivering it made up for that. A very satisfying and enjoyable performance all round.

The second half was all Gulyak’s in Schumann’s solo piano music. The choice of works also highlighted his wonderful variety of styles. The Abegg Variations (Op.1), his first published work, can sound unbelievably fussy, but Gulyak’s pristine handling of the filigreed passages over a gentle waltz rhythm was close to perfection. She also kept the 13 movements of Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood) simple and childlike, but not without sacrificing an element of virtuosity. The familiar Träumerei was a little slow for my liking, but not to the point of protractedness.

Caution was cast into the wind for Carnaval (Op.9), and here Gulyak took all sorts of risks, surging and straining at the reins whenever possible. Every short movement was given a character of its own, yet she brought the sum of the parts seamlessly. There were a few wrong notes here and there, but that was a small price to pay for her dedication to realising Schumann’s Florestan (passionate and impetuous) and Eusebius (reflective and retiring). The final march was built on a full head of steam, bringing the work to a triumphant close.

Her two encores were also varied, first Rachmaninov’s popular Prélude in C sharp minor (Op.3 No.2), played as a Russian would with great gusto, and that lovely Marcello-Bach slow movement from the Oboe Concerto. It was perfectly clear why she won the Leeds in 2009 – Gulyak is a little bit special.

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